We’re bringing you the story of our birth as an international force in the fight against human trafficking, as well as the story of Sarah — the very first survivor that The Exodus Road helped rescue from human trafficking with local police.
Note: Until All Are Free is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a third party speech recognition software and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (00:07):
The opportunity came up for me to go undercover. We got a tip of young girls potentially being sold and it was bizarre because you would think that that information alone would be enough to mobilize law enforcement, but that really isn’t how it works…
PRESTON GOFF, HOST (00:45):
This is “Until All Are Free”, a podcast by the Exodus road. I’m Preston Goff. You’ve discovered our debut episode, the very first one! If you’re not familiar with our organization, The Exodus Road is a nonprofit dedicated to the strategic fight against human trafficking across the globe. We gather intelligence, empower nationals, and facilitate rescue missions alongside local law enforcement as we fight to end human trafficking around the world. The Exodus Road was founded in 2011, and to date we’ve celebrated over 1,375 rescues and 688 trafficker arrests.
The goal of this podcast is to educate you, our listeners, with an understanding of the systemic issues of human trafficking. You can expect conversations with our founders and other experts, incredible stories of rescue and interviews with the ordinary people — operatives — who bring extraordinary justice through the work of The Exodus Road. This debut episode is a ‘From the Founders Episode.’ You’ll hear the genesis story of The Exodus Road from our CEO and co-founder, Mr. Matt Parker.
A quick listener note. Part of this story has descriptions of abuse that may be triggering for victims and survivors of violence. There are also some words that we’ve left unbeeped. Okay, here’s the story.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (02:12):
Before my wife and family and I moved to Thailand, I was living in Colorado and I was a youth pastor in this really small town. I had been doing youth work for about a decade, actually. Umm… not all in Colorado, but I was in Colorado for about five years working with the community and, and students. But
I had gotten to this point in my career… And a lot of youth workers and those who work with students … They kind of get to this point where they just felt this desire to do something else. Because I drug these students all around the world serving the poor in various countries, I had this growing passion for the global poor. And I really wanted to do something with my life that took me back overseas. My wife and I out of college, lived overseas and I fell in love with other cultures and I fell in love… Um being in those environments and helping people. At the end of the day, I just love helping people and I wanted to do that in an international environment, specifically helping the poor. So that really kind of come to these crossroads in my career where I was looking — for about a year — for what the next thing you know would be. And then this opportunity randomly comes to me to run a children’s home in Northern Thailand. And that really– it felt right.
You know, when you’re at those crossroads and you’re trying to decide where to take your family to lead them and to provide for them, but also to fulfill this deep desire to do good in the world… This opportunity was that in my mind. It’s kind of the thing that I had been waiting for almost a year.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (04:01):
Arriving in Thailand with three small kids and a beautiful wife — just full of hope — You know, I feel like the first couple days we were in this romantic period of great, amazing food, Thai food, and everything’s new. But very, very quickly you realize that you have no command of the Thai language. You don’t really know where anything is. As much as they may speak English in the city center, you start getting into the rural communities and there’s almost no English. And so just doing daily life, as incredibly challenging for us as a family. Let alone trying to, you know, run a nonprofit organization and be a leader for people who don’t speak English. Just really challenging and, and I suppose we could sum it up as culture shock. There were so many times in that first six months because where I was working, it was, it was really poorly managed before.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (05:06):
I remember I got two letters from the government threatening prison sentence for myself as the leader, just because somebody didn’t register the well properly. I mean, and I didn’t realize at the time that those types of letters are very common and, you know, it’s an empty threat. But, you know, to me I was like, “Oh my gosh.” There were things we uncovered while trying to just re reintegrate ourselves as a family into a foreign culture and run, you know, a nonprofit organization. There were things we uncovered that just really created an overwhelming sense of stress. Those first six months it just felt like I had made an overwhelming mistake. [inaudible]
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (06:04):
When we first moved to Thailand, I really didn’t know anything about human trafficking. That wasn’t kind of our mission, that wasn’t what we were doing. But we’d made some friends eventually and you know, who were working to fight human trafficking. And we didn’t know much about it, but we started to learn from our friends and they would tell us about — kind of a common problem in that part of Thailand. Brokers or John’s, men in the community (specifically the major cities) would go North to the border where there are villages — old refugee camps turned into villages — and they would recruit young girls and traffic them. And I’m like, well, how they do that? Well, they promise them jobs, they promise them money. And these families that they would recruit these girls from, these were really impoverished people groups, really poor farming communities, not a lot of education.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (07:07):
They don’t have cell phones or at least not iPhones or, or Macbooks or any of that. No technology. These are really remote places. And these Johns would go and promise this employment and the mom and dad would be really excited about that. These farming moms and dads, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is going to be great for my daughter and my son. Please, you know, take them and give them a good job.” As the story went, these girls would then get in the vehicles with the trafficker, they get to the city or wherever the destination was and then they would find out, you know, there’s no job here, actually, you’re going to be sold into prostitution. And so we heard that from our friends and it brought this kind of overwhelming sense of responsibility to me because I was running a children’s home with 48 girls in it, and they were all from these Northern villages.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (08:02):
And so it just, in my mind, I started to grow concerned as to what was happening in those communities, but also how that may have touched or be close to some of the stories of the girls that we had. And so I got into a truck with my assistant director who was a Lisu man, who spoke Lisu and English. And we drove to the border and the goal was to figure out if that was true. I was just curious. And so we would interview these village leaders and ask them, you know, lots of questions about their community and what they felt their needs were… Really trying to have this holistic approach to supporting an impoverished community. But one of the questions was, you know, tell me about this rumor. You know, I keep hearing that the guys will come to your village and recruit girls for employment… Does that, is that a thing?
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (08:57):
Does that really happen? We were in Chiang Dao, kind of on the border of Burma, Myanmar, and we interviewed four or five villages. Each of the village leaders said, absolutely, that happens all the time. In fact, we have a saying in our village. “There Are no pretty girls in the villages.” And so we met with law enforcement and they invited us to kind of be their consultants and do research for a year — to do a project and learn about human trafficking in Southeast Asia and the border areas. The crossing points for traffickers, you know, how the mechanisms work: what police were doing, what they weren’t doing, what was working, what wasn’t working, and why it wasn’t working. And so I spent a year with just a few nonprofit organizations doing that research.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (09:52):
I remember there was this day, about a year into this thing, you know, we had really mapped out, about eight different key steps in the process of freedom. We call it the process of freedom now… from victim identification to an intelligence gathering, evidence gathering to rescue or raid operation, placement of a girl into aftercare, delivery of the case to the judiciary, and then repatriation, reintegration. There are all these steps towards total freedom where you’re back home with mom and dad are in a safe environment. But there are about four different government agencies that have to be involved. And the thing that we were learning is there was corruption in each level, at each gate to the different phases of a case. There are hurdles of corruption. Evidence gathering was a big hurdle. It seemed like a lot of these cases of human trafficking were unsuccessful. Girls disappeared. They were, they were lost. How do you lose a girl out of the department of social welfare? Well, somebody’s buying that girl back out and it’s all corruption. But we were learning all those things. I was traveling around and, you know, interviewing other nonprofits who were working the streets. I had some experience, but there was this moment, it was, it was so clear. We just looked up at the table as we are doing this research…
No one’s looking for victims of human trafficking. Everybody’s talking about victims of human trafficking, but nonprofits aren’t because they’re trusting law enforcement to do it. Law enforcement’s largely corrupt. They’re underfunded, understaffed, under-trained. No one’s, no one’s really looking for them.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (12:01):
The opportunity came up for me to, to go undercover. We got a tip of young girls potentially being sold. And it was bizarre because you would think that, that information alone would be enough to mobilize law enforcement. “Hey, There’s information from the community that little kids might, might be trafficked.” That really isn’t how it works. It costs money to mobilize law enforcement and they really want to have pretty solid evidence. Most of all law enforcement is overwhelmed with cases already… They don’t want to waste time. So it really kinda came back to me to say, look, “Matt, can you find somebody to go undercover, pretend to be a John and just verify the information. That’s what we need. And if you can do that, then we’re good to go. We’ll, we’ll deploy. We’ll do the case.” My first reaction was, well, I can’t do that.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (13:01):
You know, I’m the guy that’s doing research. I’m not the guy, you know, we’ll have to find that guy, whoever that is or girl. And so I made a lot of phone calls trying to find that person. You know, all of the connections I’ve made over a year, you know, we need somebody, ideally a foreigner to go undercover Verify. That’s it. Go have a beer, verify, come back. Well, we just couldn’t find anybody to go. Nobody would go and they wouldn’t go for all the reasons you would think that they wouldn’t go. “My Wife won’t let me go.” “You know, I’m a missionary. My faith community won’t, they would never be okay with this.” or, “It’s too dangerous.” And I understood all of those, you know, hesitations. I understood those boundaries that people had put in their life. But I found myself growing increasingly frustrated with every call I’d make because what we were talking about was little girls as young as eight or nine potentially being raped for profit 10 times a day.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (13:58):
And somehow we couldn’t figure out, you know, overcoming these boundaries that people had… To then go and do a simple thing that could lead to the freedom of a child. And there was this, this wall, that just seemed impenetrable. It just created this anxiety in me. And eventually you know, I had a couple of my close friends finally call me back and they were like, “Yeah, we’ll do this, but we want you to come as well.” And it was, it was kind of that, that thing that I hadn’t considered. We were still pretty new in Thailand and my Thai wasn’t very strong and still going through culture shock, and I wasn’t in a great place. And I remember going to my wife and I’m like, “Babe, listen, I have never, I was raised quite conservative…. I’d never been to a strip club before.”
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (14:50):
I think the I’d ever done was I had gone to Hooters once. I felt really guilty about it… But I was like, “Babe, I think I think I need to go, but I want you to send me, because I don’t want to go see things that are going to harm our marriage. I need you to be okay with what I’m about to go do.” And I think I knew what had gone on in brothels and we talked about that. We call that exposure. I was exposed to things that for my whole life I was told to avoid, you know. But again, on the other end of these kinds of moral and ethical conversations was, was a child and that seemed to trump everything else as far as the value system goes. Is her life, is her freedom not worth the struggle of having to overcome something in our marriage or in my own mind, in my own heart? But I’ll, I’ll tell you, I was really nervous and I was really afraid of the idea of getting on a plane and then going to pretend to be something I’m not for the sake of, of hopeful freedom for someone.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (16:12):
When we actually went down this red light district (first one) I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was Bangkok’s oldest and largest red-light district. It was just such an overwhelming experience and it’s located off a major highway, and then you kind of turned down this alley and it’s like the whole world changes. You go from kind of mass humanity and a lot of traffic to just debauchery. You know, you have those neon lights and, and sensory overload. People are pulling on you. There are people coming up to you, showing you pornography, trying to sell sexual positions. They act as if all this is just so normal. So…
So okay. And it was so opposite of what my moral compass had ever taken me before. But I had this moment that was quite transcendent for me in that first experience.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (17:07):
You know, despite what was going on circumstantially all around me… Where you’ve got girls for sale, boys for sale, women, and men for sale, drugs are for sale. Everything elicit. You can imagine it’s kind of happening all around you. Pornography, child pornography, it’s all happening. Brothels are lining the streets and there are these black curtains, and you just have this sense that behind that curtain is something even worse. You know? So you’re feeling this for the first time as — as a father and as a husband. I had this moment, it became too much for me, it was, it was so overwhelming…. I, I just had this kind of flight sensation. Like, I gotta get outta here. This is not safe. It’s not, not good. But I had this moment for me in my own life where I just felt very intensely the truth: that I am the only man, me and my other two friends, on that street that wasn’t there to purchase young girls. We were there to free them.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (18:21):
And somehow that made us incredibly dangerous. That we were light in a dark place. We were willing togo in and do all that can be done to mobilize law enforcement to free somebody. And somehow that street changed for me–and all the players on that street changed. You know, you get tugged on a lot and they cat-call you because you’re a customer they’re trying to sell to. And I just remember shifting from trying to like get my arm back and avoid people touching me to just embracing them. Putting my arm around them and, and just loving them in a way that, that I can’t quite explain except I had found a purpose. So we went to the target location in a particular brothel on that street where we had received the intelligence from. We entered in and there are girls lined up on a stage and they’re all wearing these, these numbers on their chest.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (19:25):
And you know, we’re all quite new to this at the moment. So we’re asking the brothel owner and the trafficker questions. “You Know, why are they wearing numbers?? He told, well, because they don’t speak English and all you need to do is choose the number of the girl you want to have sex with and you can take them upstairs for an hour. It’s $45 you can do whatever you want to with them. You don’t have to be able to speak to them. You know, they, they don’t understand you anyway. And I think there was something about that… You know, we talk about human trafficking… That we turn people into a commodity.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (20:04):
They, those girls were commodities. They were canned goods on a shelf and you could pick whichever one you wanted. The thing that became so obvious to me is that this red-light district while trying to appear to be sexual and sell sex, it was slavery. And it was the easiest thing to notice. These girls on these stages, they looked sad. Their faces were blank, their spirits were broken, and you can’t hide that. You could tell occasionally, they’d really work hard at trying to hide that. But a blind man could see these girls do not want to have sex with that guy. No way, no chance. So we had the opportunity in that first case to sit with some girls, the girls that looked to be the youngest. We held their hands and they leaned their heads on our shoulders as we would talk to them.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (21:03):
But it wasn’t sexual. It was like my daughter was leaning her head on my shoulder and I got to speak to this girl named Bell. I think she was probably 16 maybe 17 years old, but she had a number on her chest. And I asked her about her story. “You Know, how did you, how did you get this job? This is a weird job. How’d you get this job?” And she tells me she was tricked. It was the same story that I’d heard up in the villages. That, “somebody had come to my family and offered me a job doing like… Massage work or working in a restaurant. But when I got here, they told me that I owed them a debt… For the transport and lodging… And that there was no job I’d have to, I’d have to dance and go with customers.”
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (21:56):
And I, I was like, “Well, why can’t you just leave?” She’s like, “They won’t let me leave. I have no idea how to get home.” These girls and boys are highly coached, trained, threatened on what they can say to clients and what they should never say. Or they’ll suffer. And if they don’t sleep with around 10 men a day, then there will be interest added to their quota of what they must accomplish to pay off their debt. And most of these girls struggle, just like all women do with their own insecurities. They don’t like their nose or their breasts are too small. They think that they’re ugly. And here’s the juxtaposition I can’t ever really overcome: When I am undercover, secretly pretending to be a John to get evidence for their freedom and I have to choose out of 15-20 women who are on stage trying to dance provocatively (most of the time not very well because they don’t want to be doing it)…. What must it be like for her?
Because in her heart I would assume there are two things at her intention. “Will You choose me please? I’m trying to pay off my debt and get home.” And “Please don’t. Please don’t choose me.”
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (23:28):
I just can’t imagine that form of slavery.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (23:39):
I can only imagine what her mom and dad must be thinking back in the village. Do they know where she’s at? They were lied to. They put her in that trafficker’s car with hope for a better future for their kid and like that’s a great thing to do as a parent. We do that all the time. We send our kids off to school or to a job opportunity and that’s what they had done. But then if they ever did find out… As a father, I had sent my daughter not off to a better future, but I had doomed her to rape, and slavery. It’s too overwhelming for me. But when I went back and I sat with my wife and you know, our kids are playing in this stream and I’m, I’m telling her what I saw…. This world I really didn’t know existed… That this thing actually happens. Off of a main highway in broad daylight. This isn’t hidden by any stretch. It’s not hidden, but it is protected. How do we fight that?
You know after that first experience going undercover with my friends in Bangkok, we go back home and we deliver what we call a “target package”. A field report to law enforcement of everything we saw. What we learned. How much girls cost. Can you take them outside, or is there restricted movement? What’s exploitation like? We put all that down in writing. We gave it to police and law enforcement. They were just overwhelmed. They were like, “Matt, we were not allowed into these places. They won’t let us in without a warrant because we’re Thai and they suspect we work with police, but they would never suspect that you work for us. This is great. We’ve never had this information before.” So they were really happy about it. I’m fully disrupted in my spirit, and so I go to have coffee with my wife to kind of share with her the details and we’re talking through what we learned. And I just remember talking about Bell, the first, the girl that I sat with and
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (26:10):
I remember saying to my wife, “Babe, listen, I, this wasn’t actually all that difficult. Yes, there was exposure to things I’d rather not have seen. And there’s risk. I’m pretending to be a John, but you know, there were like a hundred other guys at night that are in that same brothel and I look just like them.” “What Do you think Laura, if, if we do this more, I think we kind of need to do this?” Because remember I had served for a year on that research committee and the thing that no one was doing was looking for victims of trafficking. That is exactly what I’d just done. And as hard as it was, we did it… And it felt valuable. Law enforcement were excited about it. Laura looked at me and said, “Yeah, we have to do this. I agree.”
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (27:05):
You know just because my wife thought it was an okay idea… I still kind of had to ask law enforcement if that’s something they wanted. And I really felt in my mind… Like, silly. And it was probably that record playing in the back of my mind that “I’ll never be enough and I’m really not that valuable.” And so I walked into the Sergeant Colonel’s office that I really befriended. We’d worked together for about a year and I just said, “Listen, you know, would it be helpful if I did this more? If I went undercover more in search of children?”
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (27:45):
In the back of my mind… You know, I had already heard him tell me, “You’re crazy. You’re not a cop.
There’s no way. I don’t need you. I’ve got other people. But he looked at me in the eyes and he said something that literally changed the course of my life. He said, “ Matt, everybody loves to talk about human trafficking, but no one wants to do what you just asked me.” He says, “I have no help. I would love your help.” So he deputized me into the Thai Royal police, and I started carrying in my shoe some piece of paper in Thai that I couldn’t read. Get out of jail card, I suppose. And I started to canvas the city and map the city. Every dark corner, every piece of shit bar. I got to know it like the back of my hand who was for sale, when and where, and how.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (28:44):
I began to write field reports and deliver those to law enforcement. I would go out around 9 PM anstay out to 4 or 5 AM. I’d go from 10 to 12 brothels a night. I started to do cyber intelligence gathering. You know, a lot of pedophiles and traffickers, they love to boast about what they do online. It’s crazy, but they’ll tell you where to go. So I started to go and I’d make notes and I’d map and I did that for several months and then law enforcement said, “Matt, this is amazing. We love this, but we really need to see what you see because Thai women are quite small. They all look young and you know… We’d love for you to wear body-worn, covert gear, recording devices.” Up until this point, you know, even those first times of going undercover, not really knowing what to do except I wanted to get the information… That was hard enough.
Wearing covert body-worn gear is something different because if you’re found out with that, the stakes are higher. You know, the retribution against you could be more violent. So I asked law enforcement, “Okay, you know, I’ll wear the gear. What do you got?” Like, “Oh, well we don’t have any.” So I had to go on Amazon and buy my first covert piece of equipment. And somebody donated it to us. And we start building out a tactic of how to do this. You know, how do you film covertly in these environments which are normally low light, really loud. A lot of cameras can’t handle that. But I think for Laura and I, it kept coming back down to this really simple equation. What if this were our kids? Would we not want good men and women to brave the darkness, to find the courage to embolden their moral compass enough that they could be exposed to the world the way it is?
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (30:40):
Not the world we want it to be. Can we bring light in the darkest of corners for the sake of a child who’s enslaved and cannot leave and is being abused every night? Can we love that person enough? And so we decided to start contracting some retired special forces people who were living in the community and…started to pay them out of our own pocket. We didn’t have any money. No one has money when they’re young. And we just started to contract this force and I would train them in everything I’d learned. And, and they would bring their military tactics as well. And we started to build out best practices. You know, how do you do this and never victimize the victim? Protect the victim while still gathering the intel that you need…
In the early days of movement for me as an undercover operative I was called in on a particular case. I got a tip from a partnering nonprofit who knew of a 15-year-old girl that was held against her will. So they called me in to go undercover and get information. There was something about this case. It was one of my first cases. I had been doing this for a few months at the time, and I had to fly to another city, and I was preparing… I had my undercover gear, my covert gear. I was doing research on this target location. And I just had this, this overwhelming sense of fear. And I remember going up to the rooftop of my hotel and looking over the city of Bangkok… And really grappling with my fear. And I had, this sounds kind of silly saying it now, but I believed and I felt deeply that, that I was going to die. You know, it’s weird because I had this choice whether to go or not. Like I’m not a slave myself. I don’t have to go into this brothel. I don’t have to do this work. I’ve got my wife and three kids, you know, a couple of hours North… What’s going to happen to them if I die? And it just, it was this moment, it was really this powerful moment for me of facing the danger and the risks associated with the underworld and playing this part. And I just remember feeling this transcendent moment where I was impressed in my spirit that if I am to be the man and leave the legacy that I want to leave for my kids….
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (33:35):
That my life may be required of me. That to compromise… The value of freedom for a child because it might cost me too much…. That’s really not the story I want to live. And, and I just, I remember having to come to a decision that if, if tonight my life is required of me, Then it will be.
But I will not leave her in that brothel.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (34:23):
So I fly to this particular town on the border of Malaysia and I’m going undercover with one of my operatives to this particular brothel that happened to be right next to a police station. We built a rapport, my undercover operative had built a rapport with the trafficker and they had back and forth on the phone for months. And finally he’s like, “Hey, we got this new girl in, you know, I know you like young girls, why don’t you come down?” So we go in and we meet with the trafficker and at this particular brothel they line the girls up in front of you. They have numbers. It’s an old Southeast Asia kind of method called a fishbowl. Girls are just lined up in front of you and you pick one. But he motioned to the security officers, his security guards in the back of the room. They opened a door and in walks this young 15-year-old girl, and she wasn’t dressed like all the other girls. The other girls were dressed, you know, like prostitutes. A dress, heavy makeup, and high heels… And all the things. And she was in street clothes, this girl, and they brought, they escorted her up, set her right in front of us. She was Burmese and she didn’t speak Thai and she didn’t speak English. The thing that I remember about it is she was, she was very uncomfortable. She was nervous. She was fidgeting with this napkin she had in her hand and she wasn’t making eye contact. She was looking down, she’d fidget with this napkin and little pieces of this napkin were just falling to the floor.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (36:06):
And the trafficker in Thai was making fun of her. Telling us things about her. And he had said, “Look, we sold her virginity two days ago, but she’s available to you. You know, second time… You can, you can take her.” We ended up hiring her and taking her to a room. Of course we have our covert gear running and the undercover operative that was with me started to talk to her and she pulled out a bill. It was a Thai baht bill and in her language– in Burmese–she wrote on this bill (because they didn’t have anything to write on). She wrote, “Please rescue me.”
We didn’t know it at the time, but what that did was sparked a two-month effort to get her home. We left her there, we went straight to law enforcement, delivered intelligence, covert footage of that interchange and we mobilized a force. But on the way to get them, one of the cops was corrupt. Called the brothel owner and said “Hide those girls… We are coming.” So she disappeared. Her name was Sarah. She disappeared. And I told my men, listen, “We will pay … Station two men in that city and wait until she comes back.” Cause what we know, and what we knew, is that when tip-offs happen, traffickers hide the girls. But eventually, they’ll put them back into play. They’ll turn them back out onto the market. And we wanted to be there. And so we waited and we waited…a month went by and sure enough they put Sarah back on the market. We mobilize another law enforcement team, (a different one) and it was tipped a second time, another corrupt cop. And they get bribes. These cops, they’ll call the trafficker, they get, they get payback.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (38:11):
And I just felt one of our values at The Exodus Road must be stubbornness. We have to persevere because Sarah is 15. She was sold by her mom up in Burma, trafficked all the way down to the Southernmost part of Thailand. Held against her will…. Another month goes by, Sarah’s back on the market. And this time we use another force (law enforcement) and we find her again and we rescue Sarah and all the girls that were at that brothel. And we arrested those traffickers. And that was our first case in 2012.
Our first successful case. You know, and I think it’s important to say this was never about Matt Parker or Laura Parker. Never. Not once. We do not care about fame or our name. We care about victims of human trafficking and that was what motivated us. And I’m an entrepreneur, I love business and I’m wanted to build a machine. I didn’t want to just rescue one kid. That would be great, but I wanted to rescue thousands of kids and there’s no way an individual can do that. I wanted to build a machine that systematically identified victims of trafficking and then walked them through the process that we’d done research on and overcame corruption and cut through it to make sure that these, these kids, actually made it to freedom. And more importantly, that the traffickers were arrest. There’s this mantra, it became so central to our work, “we must make trafficking a dangerous thing to do.”
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (40:09):
It’s really not enough to just pull girls out because you’re putting money in the hands of traffickers who will just go buy another girl. We started to see other groups do that and their intentions were great… “Let’s Buy this girl out and run with her.” I understand that motivation, but that’s also called kidnapping. That’s also not necessarily within her scope of desire. And you really have to work with law enforcement to have this sense of impact systematically on what’s happening. And that’s difficult because most of us who are parents, we just want to run in there and grab that kid, wrap him in a towel and take them somewhere safe. But we work through the legal system for this idea of systemic change. It’s going to take a long time, but our cases are legal. We have the support of law enforcement, we work to support them.
In that way we’re arresting traffickers who aren’t just selling one girl. They’re selling hundreds of girls. And every arrest that we make has a latent effect of hundreds of rescues…. We really don’t report. We’ve rescued just over 1500 kids around the world, but the impact of the 500 arrests of traffickers we’ve had is much greater than that. I don’t know how to measure it, but we began to see this value not in replacing the law enforcement agency. That’s not what any nonprofit should do. We are supporting and augmenting their work. Training them. Giving them the technology to make their sword sharper.
But it was never about Laura and I. It was about what can we build that will rescue kids while we sleep. We had law enforcement collaborate on that “best practice” document. We had something and we started to deploy into the community.
MATT PARKER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE EXODUS ROAD (41:52):
We started to map at a greater scale. We moved into other cities… We started to rescue kids and then Laura and I looked at each other like, “We have no money…” So we formed a nonprofit, we called it The Exodus Road. So today we have 55 staff around the world… Just over 40 investigators constantly looking for victims of human trafficking and we’re winning. We’ve seen red-light districts where you could have easily found 12-year-old kids not have any kids anymore. They’re afraid. They’re not afraid of me and they’re not afraid of my wife Laura. They’re not afraid of The Exodus Road. They’re afraid of civil society that is rising up…
PRESTON GOFF, HOST (42:41):
I hope that this founding story of The Exodus Road left you inspired and excited to share what you’ve learned about human trafficking with people in your home, workplace and community. If you’re ready to learn more about The Exodus Road, visit us on our website at theexodusroad.com. Or find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at our handle @theexodusroad. If you’d like to be the first to know when a new rescue takes place, you can subscribe to our rescue texts by texting “ER” to 51555. Until All Are Free is a product of The Exodus Road, a nonprofit dedicated to the strategic fight against human trafficking around the globe. The podcast is hosted by me, Preston Goff and produced by Isaac Leigh. Our internal themes were produced and generously donated by Lucas Leigh. And the intro and outro was generously donated by City of Sound.
PRESTON GOFF, HOST (43:34):
New episodes of Until All Are Free will be released soon, and you can expect: compelling stories from the front lines of human trafficking rescues; conversations with people just like you, who illustrate what it means to live as if justice is in the hands of the ordinary; interviews with our founders, Matt and Laura Parker; and representative stories inspired by the experiences of real survivors that The Exodus Road has rescued.
You can subscribe to Until All Are Free wherever you get your podcasts, and it helps us if you rate and review us on Apple Podcasts.
”“Here is the juxtaposition that I can’t ever really overcome when I am undercover (secretly pretending to be a John to get evidence for her freedom). I have to choose, out of 15-20 women who are on stage dancing provocatively, and what must it be like for her? I would assume there are two things in her mind: “Will you choose me, please? I’m trying to pay off my debt and get home,” and, “Please don’t choose me.” - Matt ParkerMatt ParkerCo-Founder
That statement unraveled me.
I had just listened as Matt Parker, Co-Founder of The Exodus Road, recounted the story of his families’ transition to Thailand and their introduction to the fight against human trafficking. A few hours earlier, we had packed in loads of camera gear and sat down across from each other — together with Laura Parker and two other members of The Exodus Road HQ team, Angelica and Kyle.
It was nearing lunchtime, and the restaurant that had graciously opened their doors for our film shoot was beginning to hum with the sound of cooks and servers preparing for the early crowd.
The sunshine that had initially only leaked in through the windows was now determined to be seen through the drapes we had used to control light.
Just eight days earlier my wife and I had packed all of our belongings in a moving truck and made the long, windswept drive across the plains to our new home. My first week as the Creative Director at The Exodus Road was nearly complete, and already I had a strong sense that the mission I had signed on with would dismantle and reconstruct much of what I thought I knew about trafficking.
Every time I’ve interacted with an undercover operative at The Exodus Road, I walk away with this thought rattling around in my head:
“I could never do that.”
What must it be like to sit across from a victim? Could I make eye contact with a young girl or young boy that can’t possibly be the 18-years-old that their trafficker has advertised? Could I handle the depth of the desperation and conflict that lives within their hearts? Behind the masks of entertainment and the false sense of happiness that these trafficked victims are forced to portray is humanity that I’m sure would wreck me if I saw it in person.
The courage exhibited by an operative — to tame anger and aggression toward a John in that moment — is nothing short of extraordinary. Yet it is that commitment to the fight against systemic human trafficking that makes the story of The Exodus Road so unique.
I had familiarized myself with the facts of The Exodus Road long before we sat across from each other on that Colorado morning, but those facts weren’t true knowledge. I needed to hear and feel the story; to let the facts travel from my head to my heart.
Matt and Laura aren’t CIA operatives (Spoiler: no one at The Exodus Road is). They had no training, formal or otherwise, when they first chose to engage the issue of young girls disappearing from villages in rural Thailand. Challenged by the love and protection they desired for their own three children, they continued to move forward into new experiences alongside local heroes — law enforcement and volunteer operatives that wanted to see the children of their country live free.
To quote Matt again,
“What if this were our kids? Would we not want good men and women to brave the darkness and to find the courage to embolden their moral compass enough that they could be exposed to the world the way it is — not the world we want it to be? Can we bring light in the darkest of corners for the sake of a child who is enslaved, cannot leave, and is being abused every night?”
So they stepped behind the curtains that offered a thin veil over the illegal activity taking place in commercial sex districts and roadside brothels. They learned why the young girls wore buttons with numbers on their chests. Sitting amid brothels posed as bars and restaurants, they listened as victims like Belle detailed how they were lured to the city.
The system of trafficking began to take shape for Matt and Laura. With the promise of employment and a future, these young boys and girls were taken from their families only to be coerced into performing sex acts with customers (sometimes more than ten times a day). All of this to pay off an alleged debt, invented to coerce their cooperation.
As I sat there, shifting uncomfortably while they detailed horrors that were foreign to my own childhood, I couldn’t get away from one haunting idea: Who will go for these victims if not ordinary men and women compelled to see justice acted out in our world? Could I have the courage to be that person?
Eventually, the Parkers began to see patterns of success in their investigative deployments. Together with law enforcement, they developed best practices, compiled target packages, and celebrated successful rescue operations. In 2011 The Exodus Road was born. As of May 2020, The Exodus Road has celebrated its 1,355th survivor rescue, and 688th trafficker arrest.
A trafficker sits with suspected trafficking victims sitting in the background.
A minor is brought into a room to meet with our undercover operative.
As one conversation came to an end that day, we moved on to lunch together where new stories surfaced.
It was clear that this was a regular aspect of everyday conversation for Matt and Laura. We celebrated recent investigations and rescues that had taken place only a week earlier. I learned of young boys and girls that had been reunited with their families, as shared by our Country Director in India
Ordinary people have made those stories possible. Ordinary men and women have allowed themselves to be disturbed to their core by injustice. Ordinary conversations detail the names and stories of those that this dark system of oppression would much rather go untold.
Just as the sunshine had resolved to be seen through the drapes we had placed over the windows that day, the light carried by ordinary people draws back the curtains and reveals trafficking injustices taking place in every corner of our world.
We had only scratched the surface of the issue. The dismantling had begun and the facts were humanized.
I thought of my wife and sister — of my parents and the hope that they have for their kids. All parents should have the freedom to trust the dreams they have for their children’s future. It broke me to imagine my own loved ones victimized by the trafficking system.
“We must work to make trafficking a dangerous thing to do,” I thought to myself. “The Belles and Sarahs of this world deserve the opportunity to experience their childhood, and the national operatives who brave dark places on their behalf require support.”
Belle and Sarah will never know me, and they won’t know that I wept over their stories when I drove away from lunch on that sunny Colorado Springs afternoon.
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